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Americans Don’t Know What To Think About Trump’s Iran Strategy

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

On Wednesday, I wrote about what political science and polls about foreign policy can tell us about the impact of the current situation in Iran on both the primary and general election. But conspicuously missing from that analysis were any polls about how the American public feels about Iran. That’s largely because polling on Iran paints a fairly confusing picture, and surveys about this specific incident (which is also still evolving quickly) are still in the field. But in the first 2020 edition of Pollapalooza, I want to walk you through the polls we do have on Iran and military intervention there.

First, a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted over the weekend found that Americans narrowly approved of the decision to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani (43 percent to 38 percent) — but they were skeptical of how the decision was made. For example, they said 43 percent to 35 percent that President Trump did not plan the airstrike carefully enough and said 44 percent to 34 percent that he should have gotten congressional authorization before ordering the airstrike. Overall, just 32 percent said they thought Trump has a clear strategy for dealing with Iran, while 47 percent said he doesn’t. A Jan. 5-7 poll from The Economist/YouGov found similar results: Americans approved of the Soleimani strike, 44 percent to 38 percent, but said 45 percent to 36 percent that it is more important to avoid war than to “confront Iranian aggression.”

Reuters/Ipsos also fielded a survey Jan. 3-6, finding that Americans disagreed with the idea that the U.S. should conduct a preemptive attack on Iranian military interests (27 percent supported such an attack, while 41 percent were opposed). However, that was a significantly more hawkish outlook than Americans took in the last Reuters/Ipsos poll that asked about a preemptive attack on Iran, back in May. At that time, 60 percent of Americans said they opposed a preemptive attack and 12 percent supported one. Finally, Ipsos paired with USA Today for a survey conducted Jan. 7-8, making it the only poll we have so far that includes some interviews taken after Iran’s retaliatory bombing of U.S. military bases in Iraq. That poll found that Americans supported the killing of Soleimani 42 percent to 33 percent, but a whopping 55 percent said the strike made the U.S. less safe (24 percent thought it made the U.S. more safe).

It’s important to note, however, that plenty of people in all four polls didn’t express an opinion one way or the other on Iran. This suggests that opinions on Iran are still in flux and could be swayed by politicians or the media. As I wrote on Wednesday, political scientists have consistently found that public opinion on foreign policy is driven by elites.

But that’s not to say that the public didn’t have opinions on military action against Iran before this month’s events. Several polls in recent months have asked Americans about the use of force against Iran before this latest scare, most of them framing the question around stopping Iran’s nuclear program. And as you can see in the polls below, there wasn’t exactly a clear consensus:

  • According to a Fox News poll from July, 53 percent of Americans favored military action against Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, compared with 30 percent who did not.
  • But a Pew Research Center poll conducted the same month found that 49 percent of Americans felt it was more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran and 44 percent felt it was more important to take a “firm stand” against the nation’s nuclear efforts.
  • Other polls have found far less support for military intervention in Iran, including a University of Maryland survey from September that found that only 21 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should be prepared to go to war to achieve its foreign-policy goals vis-à-vis Iran, while 76 percent said that the U.S. goals in Iran did not warrant going to war.
  • Similarly, a Gallup survey from July found that 18 percent of Americans said the U.S. should take military action against Iran to shut down its nuclear program; 78 percent said the U.S. should rely mainly on economic and diplomatic efforts. But there’s an important caveat: Reading beyond the topline numbers, we see that 42 percent of those who prefer economic and diplomatic efforts said the U.S. should resort to military action if those efforts fail. In other words, about half of Gallup’s sample supported war in some circumstances.
  • And at the opposite end of the spectrum is a survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted in June: A full 70 percent said they would support using American troops to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. However, the question was asked in the context of whether they would support using American troops against a variety of countries (e.g., China, Russia) in a variety of situations, which may have made the use of troops in Iran look like a comparatively appealing proposition.

Take all this data together, and a fuzzy picture emerges: Americans may be supportive of military action against Iran under the right conditions, such as as a last-ditch effort to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The killing of Soleimani also appears to be narrowly popular, although the public seems leery of its possible repercussions. But remember that plenty of Americans still don’t know what to think. Missing variables like whether this month’s events foreshadow a longer conflict and the evolving postures taken by Trump and top Democrats likely mean that this isn’t the last word on public opinion on Iran either.

Other polling bites

  • Gallup has tracked how many Americans identify with each political party since 1991. In 2019, the firm found that, on average, 47 percent of U.S. adults identified as Democrats and 42 percent identified as Republicans. Those numbers are actually quite steady — the percent of adults identifying as Democratic has not changed in the last four years, and the percent of Republicans has hovered at either 41 or 42 since 2012.
  • My colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote this week about the tough intraparty challenge that the newest U.S. senator, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, could face from close Trump ally Rep. Doug Collins in this year’s special election. A new poll of Georgia Republican primary voters from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling suggests that Collins could have the upper hand. Republicans in the poll largely didn’t know enough about Loeffler to opine on her, with 20 percent viewing her favorably and 18 percent viewing her unfavorably. The same voters viewed Collins much more positively, as 65 percent had a favorable opinion and 6 percent had an unfavorable one.
  • According to Gonzales Research & Media Services, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has a 75 percent approval rating and just a 17 percent disapproval rating. What’s more, the Republican’s approval rating is practically identical among Republicans (77 percent), Democrats (73 percent) and independents (78 percent). The poll was conducted before a Washington Monthly article alleged that Hogan has advanced transportation projects as governor that profited his real-estate holdings, but for now, at least, Hogan remains overwhelmingly popular in the Old Line State.
  • Finally, some elusive Revolutionary War polling: A Monmouth poll released this week asked respondents which state first came to mind when they thought about America’s War of Independence. A 20 percent plurality said Massachusetts, 16 percent each said Virginia and New Jersey and 15 percent said Pennsylvania. (If New Jersey seems out of place on that list, consider that the poll was conducted among New Jersey residents, and Monmouth is based in the Garden State.)
  • Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony was purportedly the last that Ricky Gervais will host, but he might want to reconsider after seeing these Morning Consult polling numbers: 64 percent of those who watched part or all of the awards thought he did an “excellent” or “good” job, while only 5 percent gave him “poor” marks.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.4 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 53.0 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.7 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.9 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.6 percentage points (47.5 percent to 40.9 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by the same amount. At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (47.2 percent to 40.7 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.